Martin Luther King Jr., Black-ish, and Diversifying Nature’s Visitors

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I found myself at home watching an episode of black-ish that explores the stereotype that black people don’t get out into nature. These two things got me thinking about nature, our national parks, and culture.

Last night, I sat down to watch one of the only TV shows that I consistently try to keep up with, black-ish. I’m a few weeks behind (I define “keep up with”pretty loosely). The episode I watched, Wilds of Valley Glen, addresses the stereotype that black people do not go camping or get out into nature.

If you don’t watch black-ish, Google describes it this way:

Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) has it all – a great job, beautiful wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), four kids [ETA: there’s a 5th kid now] and a big home in a classy neighbourhood – but as a black man, he begins to question whether all his success has brought too much cultural assimilation for his family. With the help of his father (special guest star Laurence Fishburne), Dre begins to try to create a sense of ethnic identity for the members of his family that will allow them to honour their background while preparing them to embrace the future.


The 30 second episode recap is that the dad of the family, Dre, is dreading having to take his middle-school aged twins camping [at their private school’s football field] over the weekend. He can’t clearly articulate why he hates camping, he just knows that black people don’t do it. And he doesn’t want to go at all. Even though it is on a football field at a swanky private school. And TBH, I was right there with him.

Hilarity ensues throughout the episode as Dre pouts his way through the experience and ultimately learns that camping ain’t that bad . . . especially once you infuse your own cultural preferences into the experience. He discovers a newfound love of s’mores and doesn’t hate campfire songs as much as he thought he would (there’s a funny part at the end where they sing Kendrick Lamar’s “Love” around the campfire to acoustic guitars).

Given that yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, civil rights were already on my mind before I pressed play on black-ish. These two things got me thinking about nature, our national parks, and culture.

The episode started out by rattling off the statistic that only 7% of visitors to our national parks are African-American (this National Geographic article from 2017 confirms this stat’s accuracy).

I don’t know why the demographics shocked me—because I don’t believe I know anyone black in my immediate circle who has been camping (myself included)—but the number seemed a bit low even to me.

black-ish wasn’t the first time I had heard about the stark differences between cultures and nature. In the BlackFolksDont… YouTube series, for example, camping is prominently featured.

There was also a hilarious episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show several years ago about Oprah and Gayle going camping for the first time at Yellowstone National Park. Apparently Oprah had received a letter from a black Park Ranger informing her about the low rates of black visitors and that piqued her interest in going.

So what is up with this? What makes nature and our national parks off-limits to so many black people (and other people of color)?

At the root of the problem is historical racism. Segregation closed off access to America’s national parks to many people of color, especially black people. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many black people were legally excluded from, or segregated at, public recreational sites, including national (and state) parks. MLK Jr., of course, was a prominent figure lobbying for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which makes this all the more timely. In the US, black people have really only had access to such places for a limited amount of time.

Two researchers explains in detail why black people have historically stayed away from America’s national parks in this paper from The George Wright Forum and why this hesitation persists today. As you might expect, many reasons are tied to America’s ugly history with segregation and racism. The three broad reasons include: (1) limited socioeconomic resources, (2) cultural factors and boundary maintenance, and (3) discrimination. I won’t go into more detail on these points here, but the justifications authored by the authors are sound. The full paper (about 7 pages) is worth a read.

At any rate, black people have some deeply-rooted history when it comes to America’s national parks and other public recreation sites, and there are cultural barriers that still exist today.

These barriers, however, are slowly coming down. There is literally a full-on movement to support the bond between nature and black folks. Drew Lanham, a black professor at Clemson University, has written and spoken extensively about “Bird-Watching While Black.” His tongue-in-cheek “Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” is witty and grounded in pragmatism.

Others are also encouraging black people to get into nature. Joshua Johnson’s 1A radio program on the topic—Get Out: Nurturing A Bond Between Black People And Nature—offers all kinds of resources to people who want to take up the charge. It especially highlights the work two groups:

  • Outdoor Afro, the nation’s “the nation’s leading, cutting edge network that celebrates and inspires African American connections and leadership in nature,” and
  • Diversify Outdoors, a coalition of diverse social media influencers “passionate about promoting equity and access to the outdoors for all.”

The show also references Carolyn Finney’s book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, which provides past, present and future context on the matter.

Learning about these groups and their work made me want to explore nature and try out camping (which is now on my 2019 List of Priorities). Hopefully this post has someone (irrespective of race) thinking about the same. America’s 58 national parks are waiting for us!

Comment below with your suggestions for getting out in nature and exploring America’s national parks. I’m sure I’m not the only one looking to explore.

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